The Tampa Bay Rays have been making a strong case year after year that they are the real Moneyball team in Major League Baseball. Despite annually having one of the lightest payrolls in baseball, they still manage to put up a competitive product on the field, and that’s looking to be the same case again this 2022 MLB campaign. The Rays have the seventh-cheapest payroll in the big leagues this year, but remain in contention for the American League East division title — or at least a wild-card ticket. So, are the Rays for real or they are mere World Series pretenders who will get exposed down the road?

Tampa Bay Rays: World Series contenders or World Series pretenders?

Pitching has been the obvious strength of the Rays this season, and it’s the department that is, for the most part of the year, keeping the team’s head above water.  Among team starters in the majors, the Rays have the third-best ERA to date, with 3.35. The group’s 3.38 FIP is second overall and their .283 BABIP is 10th. However, the Rays are dealing with a banged-up pitching staff with guys like Shane Baz, Tyler Glasnow, Tonny Chirinos, Brendan McKay, and Josh Fleming all on the injured list.

At the same time, that relatively long list of hurting bodies makes it even more impressive that the Rays are able to rank as high in the aforementioned metrics as they are to date. Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen, and Corey Kluber have a lot to do with that. McClanahan sports an 11-5 record and a 2.29 ERA along with a 0.86 WHIP, so far this season. He’s struggled of late this month of August, but overall, he has been lights out on the mound for the Rays.

Kluber, on the other hand, is 7-7 with a mediocre 4.33 ERA. He appears to be a concerning asset at the moment for the Rays as the former two-time Cy Young Award winner posted a 5.34 ERA in July and has a 6.11 ERA over his first three starts in August. The good news is that Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen have both been steady on the mound. If the Rays are going to make the 2022 MLB postseason and go on a deep run, they can’t afford their pitching to regress, considering how little the offense has contributed this year.

The biggest question mark for the Rays this season has always been their offense. Tampa Bay is only 21st in the MLB with a .238 batting average. They are pretty decent in getting on base by drawing walks as evidenced by their 8.4 BB% — 11th overall — but Rays hitters who are supposed to capitalize on opportunities to drive baserunners are simply not delivering on a consistent basis. Ji-Man Choi is hitting just .237, Brandon Lowe is at .234, and Taylor Walls is hitting a pathetic .178.

As a team, the Rays are just 21st with a .249 batting average with men on base and 14th with a .257 batting average with men in scoring position. Moreover, Tampa Bay batters strike out a lot. In fact, the team’s 23.79 K% is sixth-worst in the majors. The Rays have 10 players who have at least 100 plate appearances and a strikeout rate of 22% or higher.

Harold Ramirez is a bright spot on the Rays’ batting order, as he is hitting .336, while Yandi Diaz is slashing .275/.383/.399. Randy Arozarena, who usually bats third, leads the Rays with 65 RBI but could still do better, as he’s only got a .333 wOBA. It could get better soon for the Rays once Wander Franco returns from his stint on the injured list, though, he’s been far from spectacular when healthy, batting just .260 with a .305 wOBA in 58 games.

Final decision: Contender

Say what you want about the Rays’ hitting, but as long as their pitching staff remains the way it is, the Rays are going to be tricky to face for any team in the 2022 MLB postseason. Even though Tampa Bay starters are getting just 4.27 runs per nine innings in support, they are still able to keep up with the other playoff contenders. They have series wins against the likes of the New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays, and St. Louis Cardinals. According to FanGraphs, the Tampa Bay Rays only have a 1.6 percent chance to win the American League East division but have a 75.2 percent odds to make the postseason. The team’s 3.1 percent odds to win the 2022 World Series are at par with the Cardinals (3.1%) and the San Diego Padres (4.7%), and better than the odds of the Milwaukee Brewers (2.5%).